“So many people left all parts of Gary.”
This is part 3 of a 5-part series, Chorus of Voices: Retelling Northwest Indiana History. Several of the original interviews were recorded in partnership with StoryCorps: www.storycorps.org
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Transcript for Flight Path Chorus
In 1967, Richard Gordon Hatcher, who was a city councilman, decided to run for mayor.
In what I thought was a shot in a million, a Valpo law graduate named Richard Hatcher, a black man, got elected mayor of Gary.
I remember the night he was elected, my mom and I had on — we had this big ol’ fashioned stereo console that sits on the floor, they called it hi-fi, and we were listening to the returns on the radio. And I turned and said, “You know, I think he got it.” It was just one of those times where the less you said, the more was said. Just — the silence was like profound.
My parents would talk about how they felt how proud they felt. They felt better about themselves when Gary, which at that time was considered a major metropolitan city, elected a black mayor.
He seemed to like white as well as black. He wasn’t a bigot. I didn’t think of him as a bigot. And you could talk to him, like he was a friend or a neighbor, you know.
When Hatcher won it was a very, very exciting time because we were breaking new ground. There was the excitement that new people were coming in from all over to be part of his administration. I mean, people felt it not just here, but throughout the country. So he was getting very qualified and and very well known people to help him in his administration. And that honeymoon period went on for a while.
Mayor Hatcher was a very young, African American mayor of a pretty large city. He spent a lot of time in D.C., and, and I think there must have been tremendous pressure on him to lead the way, to be a strong leader in terms of civil rights.
The majority of the whites at that time in the ‘60s, late ‘60s, they did not want to be under the political leadership of a brilliant attorney who was highly qualified to lead this city.
There was a lot of backlash over the whole Hatcher election. There were some things he couldn’t do without cooperation. White people weren’t willing to support him, they weren’t willing to even give him a chance. So… black people became bitter.
One story that I’ve been told is that shortly after he’s elected, he called all the main banks—the presidents of the main banks—to his office to have a discussion with them, and they’re all sitting there and then he didn’t show up. Now, there may have been a fine reason for that, but what was told to me is they all looked around and they felt that they got the message that they were not really wanted, so they said, “I guess we’ll go elsewhere.” I mean, that’s a story that’s probably been embellished.
I could be wrong but it’s what I believe. I think that too many white Americans thought the black mayors would treat white people like the white mayors treated black people. And they were not gonna have that. And they were just afraid. Rather than wait and see, it was, “Let’s get out of here.”
There was a great fear that a lot of pent up resentment from black people was going to spill forth in terms of violence against whites, and this had been going on in other parts of America — Detroit was being burned to the ground — and I think the white people were very fearful of this.
After Dr. King got assassinated, after the Democratic Convention and the riots in Chicago, and Mayor Hatcher was elected, that’s when the polarization really began. And that’s when people started moving out, and then when they moved out, blacks started occupying areas we couldn’t go to.
Almost immediately after this guy got elected, for sale signs up — all over. I can remember my block, which was rock solid — there was no for sale signs, I mean, I lived there for my whole life there were no… nobody left my neighborhood — half a dozen: We’re outta here. We’re moving.
A lot of people literally packed up and left.
So many people left all parts of Gary to go south. That’s how Merrillville and Munster were born.
Merrillville. Portage. Valparaiso. Valparaiso. He started looking out and he bought a house in Hebron.
Many people who had the ability moved because it became very quickly a fairly dangerous place. We’d go out for Halloween, I remember as a kid getting mugged, I wasn’t hurt, but, you know, by a gang. I remember being concerned about how to get to school, you know? My sister’s friends being chased. It was just like somebody had flipped a switch.
I was told by a different loan officer, “We don’t lend in Gary. There’s going to be a race war there.” [Laughs.] That chokes me up when I tell the story, but I remember saying to the gentleman, “If there’s going to be race war in Gary, it’s going to be because of people like you.”
They started to have fights in Tolleston park. It was a mix — it was black and white. Some of the people would come back to the neighborhood, and they said, “Well, y’know, there were knives.” Quite naturally folks started to become concerned.
You know, my father’s position was, “Gary’s good enough for me to live in, why isn’t it good enough for them. We keep our home clean, our children are well behaved. What did I do?”
Streets weren’t kept up like they used to be, garbage wasn’t picked up like it used to be, snow didn’t get plowed as much, and, you know, the city started getting run down.
It’s… there’s no bias in this at all, but almost immediately… like my street turned into… just, a ghetto. Within I’d say, within five to ten years not only were the homes run down, they were boarded up.
My parents… they had gotten together with their friends and discussed whether they should move, as well, because it seemed like everybody was moving. They decided they wanted to stay and fight for their community rather than leave.
Yeah, there were some people that wanted to stay, and did stay, and they’re still there today, but there wasn’t a big up-swelling of sentiment about, you know, “We’re gonna keep Gary the way it was,” because a lot of people saw the writing on the wall and said, “I’m getting out of here.”
It’s easy to pinpoint the reasons for the fall of Gary on a race or a person, and the fact of the matter is, there were many factors, and it was the perfect storm, and it was 1967. I mean, it was—it was the perfect storm.
The war had an impact on the economy. Technology was changing so that less people were needed in the mills. The whole suburban sprawl. Major economic things. I mean, the suburban malls did so much damage.
The mall out at Southlake Mall had been developed, and it was about to open.
Sears was open a long time before it moved. H. Gordon and Son, the department store, it closed, too. And the Palace Theatre, it was a beautiful theatre, that closed. The shoe store stayed open longer because the owners were not anti-black.
When that mall got built, a whole lot of businesses—an awful lot of businesses left. That on top of the steel mills and them outsourcing—see, they began outsourcing and automating back in the ‘70s.
Used to employ fifty thousand people. The steel mills employ maybe a thirtieth of what they used to employ because of technology.
Japan started producing steel cheaper, and plastics came in. The buttons, window crank arms and that. The dashboards were metal, that became plastic. That’s where, you know, our country headed, you know, and the world.
And, of course, a lot of the people that had been in the steel mills twenty, thirty, forty years were about to retire, and they said, “Well, let’s move out of Gary.” And I don’t think it had so much to do with Hatcher becoming mayor, but when you retire, you want to move someplace else. And I think those kind of things all came together, and it made it look like it’s because of Hatcher.
I felt then and still do that he was a great man and had the community left him alone and let him and his advisors do the things that needed to be done, Gary would be the city that we always wanted it to be, and that was second class only to Chicago.
Richard Gordon Hatcher was a brilliant man; we were all happy that he won. As the years went on — as the twenty years of his reign — we all felt disappointment, but I think that we were proud to be one of the cities that elected a black mayor at that time. It was sort of a badge of honor.
So when we open the history books, Gary will say, “Richard Gordon Hatcher was mayor for twenty years,” and if you say nobody wanted him, who elected him for twenty years? You know, maybe he could’ve done things different, which, all politicians could’ve done things different. But I think, all in all, he’ll be judged by history as opposed to judged by today, and tomorrow, and who lived through his reign.